I remember sitting on the porch with some new friends in Sheffield, England. It was August, 2003. I had just spent several days taking part in Wabi-Sabi, a pop-up ‘learning party’ hosted by my New Zealander friend Andrew Jones, in the Northern England city that gave birth to what later became known as the ‘emerging church.’ I was talking to Bea about the upcoming 2nd anniversary of 9/11.
Catching myself mid-sentence and not wanting to be a self-absorbed American, I elaborated: “I mean, September 11th, 2001.”
“Yes, Mike.” Bea said solemnly. “I know which 9/11 you mean.”
And that’s when it struck me: while terrorist attacks were not unique to the United States (London experienced its fair share, for instance, as did Northern Ireland — and the U.S. instigated its own 9/11 attack in Chile in 1973), what happened in New York City and Washington, DC on September 11, 2001, etched itself like a scar in both USAmerican soil and the entire world’s memory.
As we reflect back on 20 years of this epoch-defining event, I’m struck by the ways in which the spiritual (and biological) children of Abraham — especially the faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — have navigated our respective roles in the making, un-making, and re-making of our world. Bruce Feiler reminds us that the very term ‘Abrahamic faiths’ only came into popular usage in the days and months after 9/11, replacing the comparatively-limited ‘Judeo-Christian’ in ways that acknowledge and honor the diverse legacy of the three largest monotheistic religions.
The reasons for the attacks on the World Trade Towers (the second of which I watched collapse on live television, alongside horrified classmates and administrators at Berry College, while on my morning mail delivery route) and Pentagon are complex, and the aftermath, even moreso.
My friend and colleague Omid Safi recalls at the time “A Muslim student, an African American woman, told me: ‘I pray to God it is not a Muslim who did this.’”
My original thought was that it was a fringe militia who somehow managed to commandeer the planes, as they did a truck filled with fertilizer five years previously during the Oklahoma City bombing. Or maybe the horrifically-misguided actions of someone who shared more of what would become my social and political leanings in the months and years following 9/11: some particularly militant anarchists.
In this case it happened to be professing Muslims, but what I find interesting is that, had it been American militias or post-national anarchists, it would be in any case been fearful, vengeful individuals claiming the family tree of Abraham.
Nearly every stripe of Western or Middle Eastern violence (including the routinized violence of the state, and oppressive economic systems) springs from a funhouse-mirrors version of the People of the Book, just as nearly every collective humanitarian endeavor or compassionate community cohesion in these regions springs from faithful connection to the heart of Divine revelation:
That God is one, humanity is one, and how we treat the latter says everything about how we rightly reverence the former.
I want to highlight three resources for you that are meaning a lot to me as I contemplate just how I’ve changed since September 11, 2001, and how we might grow together. I’ve selected one resource each from the children of Abraham, that we all might be enriched.
Yesh Ballon’s mother died two days before the 9/11 attacks. Always an iconoclast, even in death, Jean Hymson Ballon found a way to make things more interesting than they had to be. With air travel halted, the rituals for honoring and mourning her death were upended, propelling her family into chaos, conflict, and deeper grief.
Unthinkable Dreams: The Year That Mom Died and the Towers Fell is the chronicle of the drama, discoveries, and occasional delights that one family experienced in the months before and after their matriarch’s death.
An important part of this journey was discovering how to listen to their dying mother speak when much of her words made little rational sense. Yesh Ballon describes the surprising emergence of his mother’s spirituality; how his relationship with her blossomed, even as her body and mind withered; and how this connected to his own spiritual journey.
As he probes this difficult time, he opens his heart and demonstrates how embracing compassion can move people from separation to connection, even though the route is neither straight nor continuous.
Above all, Unthinkable Dreams is a book about healing, and a model for harvesting from the past, in order to plant seeds and leave a legacy for the future. As someone whose own mother recently died amid the backdrop of another widespread calamity, I find a lot to relate to in Yesh’s chronicle of grief, upending, and integration.
You can ask for Unthinkable Dreams at your library or favorite local bookstore, or order it directly from the publisher at 40% off for the next few weeks. Yesh also offers spiritual direction for those of all faiths and spiritual persuasions. In my experience, he’s as funny as he is perceptive.
Oh God, What Now?
An Exploration of Christianity 20 Years After 9/11
My friends Tripp Fuller, Diana Butler-Bass, and Brian McLaren have teamed up to offer us a six-week exploration of what’s been happening in Christianity and the world at large since the tumultuous events of September 11, 2001. Themes explored include:
- 20 Years of Religious Decline
- The Rise of Authoritarianism
- Repentance & Resistance
- Inter-religious Learning
- Theology & Spirituality in Times of Rupture
- Christianity – Should I Stay or Should I Go?
These three are powerhouses of theology, history, and sociology; I’d have a hard time coming up with a roster of who I’d rather provoke my thinking and action as I seek to follow Jesus under the influence of Holy Spirit.
These sessions are interactive if you join them live (there are still four out of six live sessions to go), or are available on-demand anytime. And I know Tripp, Diana, and Brian are serious about making these accessible to everyone, as this course is available on a pay-what-you-can basis, for any amount including free.
Here’s what some recent participants have had to say about Oh God, What Now:
If this sounds intriguing to you, please join me and sign up here.
If you’d like to preview first, check these out:
- Diana Bass & Brian McLaren Session One: 20 Years of Religious Decline
- Brian McLaren Q&R: Faith Beyond Fear in an Age of Terror
America, 9/11, and the U.S. Muslim Experience
My aforementioned friend Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University. I was privileged to spend ten days with him and nearly 40 others from around the globe on an illuminated tour, a ‘caravan of the heart’ across my native homeland of Turkey.
Omid is a scholar of both the mystical dimensions of Islam (popularly known as Sufism) as well as the USAmerican Civil Rights movement. Spending time with him at carpet shops in Istanbul, Rumi’s beloved Shams’ shrine in Konya, the original İskender kebap restaurant in my biological father’s native Bursa, the museums of Atatürk, and the underground city of the Christian desert mothers and fathers in Cappadocia, I was able to witness Omid as a teacher of both perceptive mind and wide-open heart. And so, I pay attention to what he has to say about current events. Here’s a taste from his reflections on 9/11:
There is a powerful passage in the Qur’an in which the young Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) has come to call his people back to God. He is attacked by his own community and thrown into a bonfire. He calls on God with all of his heart, all of his might, all of his soul. God commands the fire to be cool toward Ibrahim and to leave him unharmed. In that moment Ibrahim became the Khalil, the intimate friend of God.
It is one of the promises of the Islamic revelation that we are to never give up hope in God’s mercy. The promise that God reaches out to a people beleaguered and engulfed in the flames. Sometimes what didn’t burn us will draw us closer to the Almighty as a friend.
These same 20 years have also seen extraordinary developments in the Muslim community in the United States and beyond.
There has been a renewed sense of commitment among ordinary Muslims, who stand up for a holistic model of justice, no matter whom it is for and whom it is against. This meant speaking out against the atrocities of al-Qaida, Taliban and ISIS, and with the same voice and passion standing up against the drone wars of the United States, the Israeli regime’s policies against the Palestinians, the Chinese persecution of the Uyghurs, Hindutva pogroms against Indian Muslims, and more.
It is as if, decades after his passing, we are reaching back to the soul of the patron saint of American Islam (if you would excuse the expression), Malcolm X: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.
I encourage you to read Omid’s entire reflection here. If this resonates with you, you don’t have to go to Duke to study with him; you can check out his on-demand (and interactive) Illuminated Courses, right here. He’s currently offering deep-dives into The Heart of the Qur’an, The Heart of Rumi’s Poetry, and Martin & Malcolm on Black Liberation. If your primary imagination of Islam is one of fear or suffering, prepare to have your heart and mind alike challenged, with coherence and beauty.
And if you’d like a taste of Omid’s heart, voice, and teachings before diving into a full-course meal, be sure to check out his Sufi Heart Podcast on the Be Here Now Network.
Just a week after the devastating attacks of 9/11, Maya Angelou addressed the students and faculty at the Wake Forest School of Divinity. Professor emeritus Bill Leonard recounts:
Like all other Americans, we were still in shock from the unthinkable tragedies that took the lives of 2,977 individuals, literally and figuratively tearing holes in the American landscape and psyche.
Professor Angelou’s long-anticipated lecture became for us a holy moment. She was in New York that fateful day, she told us, in the small apartment she kept there, so she made a pot of soup to serve the little army of friends who sought sanctuary with her, clinging to one another as the world around them collapsed.
She spoke to us of terrorism’s long history in the Holocaust, the Middle Passage of slave ships, the lynching trees of the Jim Crow South, and the massacres of innocents in assorted global and national injustices, citing novelist and friend James Baldwin who, she said, searched for hope amid the abiding reality of human evil.
With characteristic insight, Angelou concluded her remarks to the divinity school by asserting that the terrible events of 9/11 required ‘unanticipated courage’ of us — courage that lurks deep within the human heart, often unrecognized, unleashed in times of unforeseen tragedy.
As we reflect on 20 years since 9/11 and the challenges that currently face us, it is indeed a time of unanticipated courage. I’m convinced that all of us — and particularly those of us who consider ourselves friends of one God, one humanity, and one planet — have it within ourselves to manifest this courage together, by Divine mercy. I hope that resources like Unthinkable Dreams, O God What Now?, and Illuminated Courses can warm your head, heart, and hands for the journey ahead.
Yours in the anguish — and the beauty.
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